Anna Dusseau | 30th April 2020
Last week was a kick in the nuts. According to the Daily Mail, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet has labelled homeschooling as ‘dangerous’, claiming that it gives parents “authoritarian control” over children. Okaaaaay. I mean, it’s the Daily Mail, so I’m easy like Sunday morning at this point. It was only when her comments went on to say that it’s “always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless”, that I actually laughed out loud. I mean, really? Has she met my kids? And, come to think of it, almost every child I’ve come across so far through homeschooling? I’ve never encountered a more outspoken, confident and downright fearless bunch of kids in my life! And I’ve worked in some fairly tough London academies. Homeschoolers take the absolute biscuit, then dunk it in oatmilk hot chocolate and steadily eyeball you while questioning the ethical packaging of said biscuit. But, the thing is, it remains a kick in the nuts to home educators around the world when such toxic opinions are voiced by people in positions of authority, often highly institutionalised themselves although that’s beside the point. Talk about abuse of power! That’s exactly what you are doing when you write off an entire community of people – who, almost universally, prioritise the well-being of their children above all else – based on your own lack of understanding and misrepresentation of the issue. Silly cow.
Only it’s not really about Lizzy B, or the institution she represents. This is bigger than Harvard, y’all! It’s actually about how we deal with state control and intervention in our freedom of choice. And let me begin by saying that I am aware of some fairly gruesome headline stories of neglect and abuse relating to children who were not attending school. I am using this term because, when you look at these heartbreaking stories, there was certainly no homeschooling going on. My argument here does not erase the suffering of those children, nor is it blind to the fact that such extreme abuse is facilitated when there is little or no contact with the authority figures who would report on such things in a school context. But to brand the entire homeschooling demographic as ‘dangerous’ because of a few very messed up individuals is like, I don’t know, hurling racist abuse at someone on the train because their skin colour is similar to a person you saw in the news recently. It wouldn’t be tolerated in mainstream society and it shouldn’t be respected simply because the ignorance comes from on high. Thank you, Trump, for springing to mind at this point. The whole dialogue represents a knee-jerk reaction to a rapidly growing demographic who buck the norm and know more than the average Joe about the world of education. Which never goes down well. Four hundred years ago, people were regularly persecuted, even executed, for heresy; now our mental landscapes have change and I think we would all agree those people died in vain. It’s different and it’s not so different. Because, by demonising regular homeschooling families rather than tackling the actual problem itself, you are wasting your breath and doing the victims of these awful circumstances no favours at all. Abusers will always find a way to abuse. Homeschooling is just an outlet; not the cause.
“I’ve learnt that the safest path is not always the best path and…that the voice of fear is not always to be trusted.”– Steve Goodier
Because I for one would welcome greater scrutiny of the home educating sector. I know this isn’t a popular opinion, but I feel along with many others that I have nothing to hide and, in fact, the school system has a lot to learn from the homeschool approach and the wonderful effect this has on childhood creativity, motivation, autonomy and well-being. My only concern would be that any form of regulation would be carried out by people who don’t really understand the principles of home education and have neither the time nor inclination to devote to engaging properly with it. I expect this would be the case, especially under the current government. What is easy to overlook, when talking about authoritarian control, is the cumulative effect of being plugged into the state school system for many, many young people. It is relentless and the lack of joined-up thinking turns the screw even tighter. Take the average teenage boy, who wakes up tired in the morning and is barked at for not being ready on time to leave because mum is late for work and dad has to catch the train, when all his body actually needs to do at that point is rest a bit longer because, biologically, he’s growing and that wipes you out. Having been rushed out of the house, this guy arrives at school to find he’s forgotten his homework and is double-checking his bag when he gets another telling off in assembly for disruptive rustling. Sit still. Shut up. An adult is talking now. Feeling a bit hacked off at this point, the same young man arrives at his first class and tries to explain the situation to the teacher, but she is having none of it and instructs him to sit down and stop interrupting. That’s detention for another late homework. And don’t even bother trying to tell me that your parents work late and there’s nobody available to help you with it; excuses, excuses. On the way to the next lesson, he’s caught by the Head of Year checking his phone (probably to see if he can get his dad to call the school and explain the homework situation) so now that’s confiscated and it’s another detention for having a phone in school. “But my mum won’t let me take the bus on my own without one!” “That’s entirely your problem, kid.” Jesus! No wonder so many young people have anger management issues. Sometimes, it’s only the form tutor who actually sits down with a child like this and connects the dots, forming a holistic picture a what their day under the iron fist of blind adult authority feels like. I have been a form tutor many times. So have several of my fellow homeschooling friends and colleagues. We have seen what schools are like and we don’t want that for our own children.
“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”– Albert Einstein
If, in fact, this offering from the Daily Mail is, as I suspect, jumping on the bandwagon of COVID-19 crisis schooling rather than actually critiquing the long-established and gentle practice of elective home education, then I think they’ve got a point. The current situation is claustrophobic for even the most solid of family setups and what some children must be witnessing – or even experiencing themselves – at home right now must be traumatic. No wonder the Head of OFSTED, Amanda Spielman, is calling for children to return to school as soon as possible. For many children school is, sadly, an escape from an unhappy home. But actually, the damage of the lockdown runs further than that, as we see news stories submerged by narratives of stressed-out parents struggling to cope with remote working, squabbling siblings and what appears to be an attempt to recreate ‘school’ at home. This certainly does sound like a dangerous environment and one in which countless children oscillate between oppressive daily schedules imposed by parents floundering in an endless stream of communication from the school (some are actually asking students to ‘sign in’ online at 8:30am) followed by the total void of being dropped from the crisis schooling circus and left to their own devices which, in some of the less happy homes I have encountered, means a Golding-esque hierarchy battle between siblings who have become so estranged by the school system that they no longer know how to just hang together and look at a magazine. Some families are coping brilliantly through this time. Some are not. But neither represents homeschooling, so I can’t help but wonder why the only social group that isn’t gagging for the back to school date to be announced is the one being dragged through the headlines.
I am writing this post for all the exceptional home educating families I have met, who I know are too busy homeschooling their children to scrap with the media. The true spirit of home education is born out of a gentle parenting philosophy that takes account of children’s different needs and desires every step of the way. I am as mindful of my son’s fear of large groups as my daughter’s need to try on lipstick and go to her first sleepover. Homeschooling defines normality, rather than deviating from it. And where extreme ideologies or irresponsible approaches to parenting do exist, we must ask ourselves whether banning home education is likely to solve this problem, or simply shift it. I expect, after all, that tyrants and despots went to school once too, just like the rest of us. Respecting homeschooling families goes hand in hand with embracing diversity in society. We cannot apologise for rare cases where individuals who do not represent our values persecute their own children. But what we can say is that we’re a friendly bunch; come and check it out properly, if you’re interested. The door is always open.
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